California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced Tuesday that roughly 45,000 people on community supervision will be able to vote, reversing his predecessor’s policy. The decision, he said, was motivated in part by the vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
California’s announcement was the latest development in a growing movement to return voting rights to those with a criminal record. Presidential candidates on the right and left have made it a key element of their platforms. And in his big speech on criminal justice in July, President Obama said that “if folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”
Lost in this political enthusiasm is the fact that many of those who have spent time in prison already have the right to vote. But state laws on voter disenfranchisement are a complicated patchwork of policies, with varying rules on whether those on parole or probation can vote, whether those convicted of certain crimes — like rape and murder — are ever eligible, and whether voting rights are reinstated automatically after release. (Voting rights for released federal offenders are determined by the laws in their home state.) Advocates and researchers say that confusion over state laws has kept many otherwise eligible voters from the polls.